Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions

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1 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions

2 Contributors: Beccy Allen, Ruth Fox, Isla Geis-King, Virginia Gibbons, Matt Korris, Petya Pavlova and Michael Raftery. Acknowledgements This research was supported by the Group on Information for the Public, UK Parliament. The report also draws on the Audit of Political Engagement project which is supported by the Cabinet Office and the House of Commons. We are grateful to the following for their help and advice with the research for this report: Jane Carn and Stefanie Tetenberg (YouGov); Tom Mludsinski, Michael Clemence, Gideon Skinner and Dr Roger Mortimore (Ipsos MORI); Mihir Bose; Liz David-Barrett (Research Fellow, Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation, Saïd Business Schl); Professor Gary Davies (Director of the Reputation, Brand and Competitiveness Research Group, University of Manchester); Dr Rogan Taylor (Director of the Ftball Industry Group, Schl of Management, University of Liverpl); Lord Burns and Lord Ouseley. We particularly thank the participants across the country who tk part in our focus groups in October Cover photo adapted from LG TV, from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0) and screenshots from YouTube clips of Prime Minister s Questions. Hansard Society, 5 th Flr, 9 King Street, London, EC2V 8EA Tel: Fax: Copyright 2014 Hansard Society. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, without the prior permission of the Hansard Society. For more information about other Hansard Society publications visit our website at

3 Contents Contents Executive summary 5 Introduction 11 About this report: method and structure 17 Chapter 1 Public attitudes to Parliament and politicians 19 Chapter 2 How the public view the House of Commons chamber and committees 27 Chapter 3 Reforming PMQs: Scrutiny and spectacle 41 Chapter 4 Rebuilding Parliament s reputation 57 Case study: Managing reputation: Parliament and the national game 67 Appendix I The North-South divide 71 Appendix II Focus group recruitment overview 75 Appendix III Focus group discussion guide 79 Appendix IV Quantitative survey methodology 87 Appendix V Audit of Political Engagement (APE) Poll topline findings 91 3

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5 Executive summary Executive summary The public recognise Parliament s essential role at the heart of our democracy but are deeply dissatisfied with the culture and conduct of politics. Prime Minister s Questions (PMQs) is a significant contributory factor in this disenchantment. Perception of PMQs focus group findings PMQs is a cue for the public s wider perceptions of Parliament it provides a lot of the raw material that feeds their negative assumptions about politicians. They see Parliament through the prism of the House of Commons chamber. They commonly assume that PMQs is therefore how Parliament works all the time. I found that most of the MPs just sat jeering at everyone and not actually listening to what people were saying just what my image of Parliament is in my head. This is everything that s wrong with politics. MPs groaning like they re in panto, MPs NOT LISTENING to each other, the PM refusing to answer simple yes or no questions and reading from a script like some kind of actor. I mean, what were they even talking about? PMQs, in principle, is an important part of the democratic process because of the opportunity to hold the government to account. But PMQs in practice alienates, angers and frustrates the public. I don t think it serves any purpose any more it is supposed to hold the PM to account but is now just a pantomime. They talk to us as if we know exactly what they are talking about. Not sure how others feel, but I for one find that they are talking over me and treating me as some sort of imbecile. The public dislike the noise, the point-scoring and the perceived failure to answer the questions. in the real world if you knew a person who would never give a straight answer to a question you would suspect they had something to hide or were dishonest. a pathetic spectacle MPs just seem to be point-scoring and not really thinking. 5

6 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions The atmosphere particularly the noise confuses viewers and makes them feel uncomfortable on occasion it is perceived to border on bullying. there s something very uncomfortable to me about watching one person get attacked by so many people. The conduct of MPs is perceived like that of schl-children in a playground. Like a scene from a schl playground. They wonder why people do not take them seriously..well, I guess they do not wonder, evidently. children behave better, they are normally quiet in class. my grandchildren have more manners than our politicians. They contrast the behaviour with their own lives particularly in the workplace and conclude that MPs are setting a very pr example. They do argue like children. I mean can you imagine any other sphere of adult life where one would act with so little respect? If I went off like that in my job I would be sacked. They dislike the theatrical quality of it. A rousing speech, and passionate conviction is a gd thing. This was noise and bluster and showing off theatrical, but not gd. theatre as in farce drama to see who can out do the other. They are also suspicious about the theatrical and pantomime aspects. They doubt the authenticity of what they see and consequently consider it dishonest. I wonder if they put on a big show for the cameras, then go off down the pub together and have a gd laugh at us. It s a tradition that opposite sides shout and make fun of each other. It s a pantomime. Some are best friends away from the debating chamber. They perceive that MPs are ridiculing situations that affect the lives of ordinary people instead of taking the issues seriously. 6

7 Executive summary I find it hard to believe that they truly care about the issues they are discussing and how it affects ordinary people. topics which are meant to be taken into consideration are in fact taken as a joke. The public are more likely to feel ashamed than proud of PMQs and consequently of Parliament. great for tourists, crap for the country. Great Britain no longer great. PMQs Audit of Political Engagement 11 opinion poll results Fifty-four percent claim to have seen or heard PMQs either in full (16%) or in clip form (38%) in the last 12 months. Awareness of PMQs is heavily skewed towards older citizens. Sixty-eight percent of those aged 65+ have seen or heard PMQs in the last year compared to just 35% of those aged % of the public agree that there is t much party political point-scoring instead of answering the question 5% disagree. 47% agree it is t noisy and aggressive 15% disagree. 40% agree it deals with the important issues facing the country 20% disagree. 36% agree it is informative 22% disagree. 33% agree it puts me off politics 27% disagree. 20% agree that it s exciting to watch 44% disagree. 16% agree that MPs behave professionally at PMQs 48% disagree. 12% agree it makes me proud of our Parliament 45% disagree. Consumption of PMQs affects attitudes. Those who report having seen it in full in the last year are more engaged by it than those who have seen only clips, but both groups share, almost equally, the negative perception of MPs behaviour. Reform of PMQs It should be moved to a Tuesday or Wednesday evening. Wednesday lunchtime disproportionately enables only those aged 55+ to watch it in full. The format should be varied to facilitate a more discursive approach, pursuing genuine debate on just a few topical areas as well as more rapid-fire Q&As. Use of open questions should be reduced with renewed emphasis on closed, subject-specific questions from backbenchers. 7

8 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions The number of questions asked by the Leader of the Opposition should be reduced in order to free up time for more questions from backbenchers. Citizens could be invited, once a month, to submit questions for consideration at PMQs. New technology means this can be done in simple and cost-effective ways. A new sin-bin penalty naming a Member for disorderly conduct and removing them from the chamber for the remainder of PMQs should be introduced for use at the Speaker s discretion. Public perception of parliamentary committees focus group findings The public are more positive about the conduct of Liaison Committee and Select Committee scrutiny than they are of PMQs. However, they do not always associate this work with Parliament because it does not take place in the chamber. The lack of noise combined with more direct answers and less point-scoring lends itself to a more informative and engaging exchange than PMQs. In the absence of noise and theatre viewers find it possible to understand what is being discussed. The language used in committee sessions is not commented on negatively as being t complex, jargon, or the language of the elite. In contrast, PMQs is so overpowering and disconcerting that viewers focus more on the spectacle than the issues. Size and scale matters. Smaller group work - e.g. in committee rather than in the chamber is perceived to be a more effective means of reaching compromise. Citizens are unclear about what a select committee is ( another fuzzy term we cannot understand ) and who its members are. They recognise the value of select committees but are concerned about their effectiveness and whether they really have the powers to make a difference. There needs to be much greater emphasis on outcomes and results in order to convey the value of this work. Amazon still don t pay tax, the bankers got off with their bonuses and nothing will change at the BBC. Accountability, accessibility and transparency A general election is not considered a strong and useful accountability mechanism. We have no way to get rid of them really or stop them the power isn t ours, we simply THINK we have power to elect when really we tick a box and then what? Same old stuff, different day. 8

9 Executive summary The public view the concept of accountability in Parliament through the lens of their own personal experience in the workplace (e.g. performance management systems and league tables). The lack of such accountability mechanisms feeds the perception that MPs are different from and separate to ordinary people. MPs have split loyalties and therefore do not put the public first. MPs are slaves to two masters their voters and their parties. It is the voters that give them their jobs and the parties that give them their careers. Politicians, as public servants, should have a high moral outlk on their work, a sense of vocation rather than careerism. As a calling this should be done for its own sake; income or other material rewards are peripheral. The language of politics is cryptic and confusing and part of an elitist tradition. The inability to understand what is going on is a source of great frustration to the public who feel that the system lks down on them and treats them as if they were stupid. Text box explanations or subtitles on screen during PMQs or select committees, providing a running text commentary on the issues and explaining key terms, would help citizens to understand what is going on. Rebuilding Parliament s reputation Reputation is a matter of perception as much as fact and, whilst easily destroyed, it can be incredibly difficult to rebuild. It is rted in perceptions built on past experiences as well as anticipated future behaviour. If Parliament is to repair its reputation, it needs to address four key areas: The sense that it is out of touch Concern about behaviour and values Questions about format and effectiveness A perceived lack of accountability Because of its role at the heart of our democracy, with responsibility for scrutinising the governance and leadership of other bodies, there is a particular onus on Parliament to addresses its own governance short-comings. There is a desire for clear, strong leadership. Parliament needs to be under control if it is to have any control over the country. Every interaction that parliamentarians have with the public affects not just citizens views of them and their party but also of Parliament itself. It is not clear, however, that Members sufficiently 9

10 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions recognise their collective obligations to the reputation of Parliament as they do to that of their party. There is a desire for greater emphasis to be placed in Parliament on the kind of workplace standards that apply elsewhere in relation to conduct and ethics. The public want politicians who regard service in Parliament as more of a vocation than a job, prioritise the public interest over private gain and are prepared to make sacrifices along the way. The public think there should be more oversight of MPs by ordinary people. Regional consultative groups or Parliamentary Councils, modelled on the BBC s Audience Councils, could help by providing a public sounding board for the institution and a means to test out ideas with the public. Significant change in the way Parliament works, and consequently its long-term reputation, may ultimately come about because of the combined demands of physical restoration and new technology. Parliament s Restoration and Renewal Programme provides a unique once-in-a-century opportunity to fundamentally re-think the entire culture and conduct of parliamentary politics as a 21st century enterprise, and the way in which it engages with the public, through the physical restructuring of the institution. 10

11 Introduction Introduction Politicians and Parliament are increasingly treated with public contempt. The discontent is directed at all the mainstream political class and goes well beyond particular dislike of any one party or politician. Although generally proud of our democracy the public detest politics and whilst recognising Parliament s essential role at the heart of that democracy, they are deeply dissatisfied with it and with the representatives they elect to it. There has never been a golden age of public trust and respect for politicians and Parliament but over the last decade, as measured in our annual Audit of Political Engagement, public attitudes have remained on a downward trend from an already low base. Only 36% are satisfied with the way that Parliament works. 1 Fifty-five percent believe that it debates and makes decisions about issues that matter to me, 2 but less than half (47%) believe that it holds government to account, 3 and only 30% think it encourages public involvement in politics. 4 Public perception of MPs is bleaker still. Only 23% are satisfied with the way that MPs generally are doing their job and only 34% say the same about their own local MP. 5 And when their trustworthiness is ranked alongside other occupations, politicians occupy the relegation zone alongside tabloid journalists, estate agents and bankers. So what can and should be done to repair the situation? Although the problem is clear, the specific measures that would have the most effect in shifting public perceptions and restoring the reputation of Parliament and politicians have proven illusive and difficult to identify. Successive governments have pursued a smorgasbord of political and constitutional reforms but few, if any, have had a discernible impact on public attitudes over the last decade. But although citizens are generally unable to articulate the specific reforms that would move Parliament closer to their ideal hindered as they are by a lack of knowledge about how the system works the way they talk about politics, Parliament and politicians does provide a series of critical clues to help navigate in the right direction. The culture and conduct of politics Between November 2011 and March 2012 we conducted 14 focus groups across the country, talking to 153 members of the public about their perceptions of the political system and what they would most like to change in order to improve it. 6 What was remarkable about these discussions was that 1 Hansard Society (2013), Audit of Political Engagement 10: The 2013 Report (London: Hansard Society), pp Ibid., pp Ibid. 4 Ibid. 5 Ibid., pp The focus groups were conducted jointly with Professor Colin Hay (University of Sheffield) and Professor Gerry Stoker (University of Southampton). The work was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (RES , Anti-politics: characterising and 11

12 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions the participants suggestions for reform bore so little resemblance to what the political parties and politicians talk about in terms of a political reform agenda. Constitutional changes, for example, were very low down on the list of priorities. Making politics more transparent so that it is more understandable and making politicians more accountable for their performance between elections, were much more important. 7 A strong undercurrent in the groups was public dissatisfaction with the culture and conduct of politics: that politicians are unrepresentative; that they are out of touch and unable to relate to ordinary citizens; that their behaviour is out of step with that of ordinary people; that they occupy a different world from the rest of the public; and that no matter who is in office, or what they do, in the end nothing really changes. In half of the 14 groups, participants raised, unprompted, their concerns about Prime Minister s Questions (PMQs). Frequently, the analogy of the schl child or the theatre was raised. MPs were dismissed in scathing terms as behaving immaturely and childishly, as if they were in a big noisy classrm or a comedy-show. For many of the participants the futile arguments, silly debate, point-scoring and failure to answer a straight question was unbearable. One participant even likened what they saw to the raucous, puppet shows the Muppets and Fraggle Rock. As popular as these shows were, the analogy was not bestowed as a compliment. 8 Serious questions about the role and effectiveness of Prime Minister s Questions have also been raised at Westminster in recent years, not least by the Speaker of the House of Commons. Describing PMQs as scrutiny by screech, where MPs yell and heckle in a thoroughly unbecoming manner, he warned that the weekly clashes are so stage-managed and rowdy that they are bringing the House into disrepute. 9 Is the culture and conduct of PMQs damaging to the reputation of Parliament and politicians? Is it a cue for negative public perceptions and if so does it need to change to help restore the reputation of Parliament? The discussion in our focus groups suggested the Speaker might be right. But given the extent to which the value of PMQs has been questioned in recent years by politicians and journalists alike the lack of any detailed research about what the public really think of it is stark. In the absence of any quantitative or qualitative research remarkably there appears to have been no polling on the subject the assumptions and opinions of the Westminster village have substituted for substantive evidence. accounting for political disaffection ). 7 For details of the categories of reform identified in the focus groups, and the testing of them in our Audit of Political Engagement opinion poll, see Hansard Society (2013), Audit of Political Engagement 10: The 2013 Report (London: Hansard Society), pp The transcripts of all 14 focus groups are available at the Economic and Social Research Council Data Store. ac.uk/store/collaborativecollectionedit.jsp?collectionpid=archive%3a Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, 15 September See commons/the-speaker/speeches/speeches/speech-to-the-centre-for-parliamentary-studies/ 12

13 Introduction Prime Minister s Questions: the Westminster Marmite test PMQs is Westminster s shop window 10 because it is the most televisual of all parliamentary proceedings and consequently is better known than any other aspect of Parliament s work. It is the most famous session of any parliament around the world, envied by citizens in other countries whose leaders are rarely held to direct account in so public a fashion. It is famous for its combative, adversarial atmosphere and often stinging wit, and is parliamentary box office for the political lobby. But debate at Westminster about PMQs is trapped in a parliamentary version of the Marmite test : politicians and journalists either love it or loathe it. Its defenders argue that if it is toned down no one will watch and the public will be even more detached from parliamentary activity. Its detractors argue that watching it is so off-putting that it feeds the public s anti-politics, anti-politician md. Its defenders contend that it provides a uniquely valuable opportunity to hold the leader of the country to account each week; its detractors consider it to be risible scrutiny. Former political editor of The Times, Peter Riddell, summed up the dilemma thus: What may appear to be open questioning of a leader in a democracy has become a charade, but changing it may kill the spectacle. 11 All can agree that PMQs is an extraordinary test of stamina, nerve, and a political leader s ability to think on their feet; but some question whether it is a valuable use of politicians time. It is meant to be a parliamentary event but is increasingly a party-political jamboree. Some call for it to be abolished; others argue for its retention, fearing that calls for reform will play into the party leaders hands with Prime Ministers only t willing to end their weekly inquisition. There has long been criticism of PMQs across the political spectrum but the intensity of the criticism seems to have intensified in recent years connected to a perception that the sessions have become noisier and a more obviously shallow form of partisan point-scoring. Recent research published in Parliamentary Affairs by an academic team at the University of Birmingham gives credence to this perception. Analysing the opening sessions of PMQs for the last five Prime Ministers they concluded, our data appear to confirm that PMQs has become both rowdier and increasingly dominated by the main party leaders. 12 They found that there has been a significant decrease in the number of questions asked at PMQs over the years, and that this correlates strongly with increases in the rowdiness of MPs and the time allocated to the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition during each session. Examining the number of interruptions during each PMQs and the number of interventions by the Speaker of the House they found that together, these two indicators of conduct appear to lend evidential support to the notion that there has been an increase in the 10 This description of PMQs was coined by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon John Bercow MP, in his speech to the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, 15 September See 11 P. Riddell (1998), Parliament under pressure (Victor Gollancz: London). 12 S.R Bates, P. Kerr, C. Byrne and L. Stanley, Questions to the Prime Minister: A Comparative Study of PMQs from Thatcher to Cameron, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol. 67, No.2 (forthcoming). Available via advance access online at early/2012/09/24/pa.gss044.full 13

14 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions rambunctiousness of PMQs over the years. 13 Members of Parliament across all parties and with different lengths of service in the House are now speaking out and demanding reform. Ben Bradshaw MP has called for Members to boycott the sessions until it improves: If you re actually in the chamber yourself, the cacophony is dreadful and you can t often hear what Ed Miliband or In February and July 2013, the Conservative MP Alun Cairns and the Liberal Democrat MP Tessa Munt tk noise readings in the chamber for the BBC Daily Politics show. They recorded noise levels of between 89 and 97 decibels, or as loud as a fd blender in one part of the chamber, and as Liverpl s ftball ground in another. 15 David Cameron are saying. 14 What the public hear is a filtered version of this noise: only the microphones near the person speaking are activated for broadcast purposes and consequently they don t pick up a lot of the sound across the chamber. As Glyn Davies MP noted, there is so much noise anticipating the arrival of the principal gladiators for their weekly joust that we struggle to hear. 16 In a survey of new MPs a few months after their election in 2010, one Member declared that the single thing that had most surprised them so far was the noise/banter/heckling during debates, especially PMQs. 17 Lynne Featherstone MP has noted how the atmosphere whipped up by the party managers would simply not be tolerated in other workplaces: the atmosphere and ethos is far t much about verbal strutting and intimidation Can you imagine running a workplace on that basis? Judge a manager by how loudly his or her staff shout and heckle other managers at the weekly staff meeting? Bizarre. Yet this is meant to pass for normal adult behaviour in the Palace of Westminster. 18 Sir Roger Gale MP has suggested the time has come for PMQs to be scrapped: You would not judge the performance and discipline of a schl by the behaviour of the kids in the playground break. That, though, is how hundreds of thousands of television viewers watching Prime Minister s Question Time weekly, judge the House of Commons. Because that is all they see. That the image of the Mother of Parliaments should be projected worldwide by a cross between the end-of-the-pier show and a Roman games, with the thumbs down going weekly to the loser, is a pity. 19 An increasing number of journalists and political bloggers share these sentiments. Jackie Ashley of The Guardian concluded over a decade ago that the time had come to call time on the ritual jousting. The truth is, she argued, PMQs is puerile, point-scoring, yah-b nonsense, which has done more to debase the reputation of politicians than anything else and that includes spin 13 Ibid. 14 MPs are urged to boycott rowdy PMs Questions, Western Morning News, 25 June 2013, Glyn Davies MP quoted in House Magazine, 8 March Hansard Society, A Year in the Life Survey of new MPs, Survey 1, Question 31 response, Summer The problem with PMQ s, Liberal Democrat Voice, 5 January 2008, 19 Debate; Should Prime Minister s Questions be scrapped?, Total Politics, 14

15 Introduction doctors, leaked s and fiddled figures. 20 More recently, Peter Hoskin similarly argued on the Conservative Home website for PMQs to be scrapped. The weekly carnival has, he argued, become wearily predictable. The planted questions and scripted attacks. The phony applause and caterwauling. This may be fun political theatre, but it rarely casts its players in a flattering light. 21 Dan Hodges, political blogger for The Daily Telegraph, and a self-confessed parliamentary traditionalist who likes the arcane rules and pomp and splendour recently concluded that it was time to put an end to what is no longer a parliamentary occasion but a party political one. It is not a forum for intelligent scrutiny, he argued, but a partisan shting gallery. And far from acting as a showcase for British parliamentary democracy, it s making us lk an international laughing stock. 22 The headline of a review in The Observer by Miranda Sawyer declared, listening to PMQs is like being cped up with a couple who detest each other. PMQs, she wrote, seems increasingly pointless: a barrel-load of hecklers and a couple of comedians who plough through their material, no matter what. John Bercow tried his best the public don t want to hear this but to no avail. Grim, grim, grim. 23 David Maddox, of the Scotland on Sunday, has expressed concern about what PMQs tells us about how MPs view their role: The event is not just entertainment, although it often seems to pass for that. It is a vital part of British political machinery and its recent disdainful treatment by the political elite reflects badly on how they view their own accountability. 24 But for every politician and journalist who expresses frustration with PMQs and concern about the impact it has on the watching public, there are just as many politicians and journalists prepared to leap to its defence. Many journalists, particularly those in the press gallery, love the atmosphere. It s undeniable, says Paul Waugh of Politics Home, that most of the Wednesday lunchtime exchanges are more theatre than substance. And the MPs expenses scandal and the accompanying public disgust may mean that pr conduct at PMQs feeds into a wider perception that our parliamentarians are in a Westminster bubble filled with the hot air and sound of their own voices. But personally, I like the heckling, paper-waving, braying beast that is PMQs. The noisy rabble may be worse behaved than Grange Hill fifth-formers, yet at least the event is full of life. 25 The late Simon Hoggart of The Guardian placed value on the accountability function at the heart of the theatre. Amid the baiting and the silly jokes, something does emerge: an attitude, a plan, a 20 J. Ashley, No question: scrap PMQs, The Guardian, 18 July P. Hoskin, Go on, Mr Cameron scrap PMQs, Conservative Home, 31 March 2013, thetorydiary/2013/03/go-on-mr-cameron-scrap-pmqs.html 22 D. Hodges, PMQs is a joke, and the world is laughing at us. Time to end it, The Daily Telegraph, 28 November 2013, telegraph.co.uk/news/danhodges/ /pmqs-is-a-joke-and-the-world-is-laughing-at-us-time-to-end-it/ 23 M. Sawyer, Review: Listening to PMQs is like being cped up with a couple who detest each other: Prime Minister s Questions 5 Live, The Observer, 4 December D. Maddox, Leaders need new attitude to scrutiny, Scotland on Sunday, 28 May Debate; Should Prime Minister s Questions be scrapped?, Total Politics, 15

16 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions memorable quote even the occasional truth. It s only half an hour a week, it s rare in the rest of the world, and we would be prer as a nation without it. 26 Alex Stevenson, parliamentary editor at Politics.co.uk contends that the noisy nature of the sessions is what gives them their power: PMQs does damage the reputation of the Commons because it shows MPs to be childish and vindictive and bad-tempered. The public may write this off but I don t think it s a bad thing. It s a gd thing that we ve got this confrontational kind of politics because without it we d just get consensus and agreement and that s exactly what the government wants. 27 Lloyd Evans of The Spectator, appalled by an unusually quiet PMQs after the last general election, shares the sentiment. The House is there, he argued, to examine the mettle of its leaders under conditions of maximum stress. This means shouting. It means insults. Sometimes it means mayhem t. So be it. This is what politics is civil war refined into rhetoric. We need to see it in its natural condition. 28 Stephen Pound MP dismisses the Speaker s concerns about the detrimental impact the ill-tempered clashes may be having as absolute rubbish. The public, he argues, love it. They watch Prime Minister s Questions because it is the World Wrestling Federation without the subtlety. If there were bld pouring down the aisle they d be even happier. 29 But who is right about public attitudes to PMQs: the defenders or the detractors? The answer is important because if the current culture and conduct of PMQs is indeed contributing significantly to the public s detrimental attitude to Parliament and politicians then it cannot be left untouched by reform. 30 We have therefore tested, for the first time, the hypothesis that PMQs is a cue for the public s wider perceptions of Parliament. Using a series of online focus groups and a subsequent battery of questions on our Audit opinion poll survey we set out to explore whether Parliament s shop window is now a contributory factor in public disenchantment with the institution. Does it bring the House of Commons into disrepute to such an extent that it is having an adverse effect on public perceptions of Parliament and politicians more generally? If it is now inflicting reputational damage can it be left unreformed, and if not, what reforms are most likely to be favoured by the public? 26 S. Hoggart, A hotline to the people: despite the schlboy rowdyism, PMQs 50 years old next week is an institution to treasure, The Guardian, 23 October 2011, 27 A. Stevenson, cited in A symbol of democracy or a noisy rabble: do we really need PMQs?, The Metro, 11 December 2013, co.uk/2013/12/11/a-noisy-rabble-or-a-symbol-of-democracy-do-we-really-need-pmqs / 28 L. Evans, Bercow s screech, The Spectator, 7 July E. Lowther, Do we really hate MPs getting rowdy?, BBC Online, 5 February 2013, 30 Apart from the decision to replace the two 15 minute weekly sessions with one 30 minute session in 1997 the format of PMQs has largely remained untouched since the late 1970s when the open question was adopted. The last inquiry into PMQs was undertaken by the House of Commons Procedure Committee in 1995 but its recommendations were not taken up. See House of Commons Procedure Committee (1995), 7 th Report of the Session, Prime Minister s Questions, HC 555. Some of the issues were revisited in a subsequent Procedure Committee inquiry into parliamentary questions but again no recommendations were adopted. See House of Commons Procedure Committee (2002), 3 rd Report of the Session, Parliamentary Questions, HC 622. A brief history of Prime Minister s Questions is set out on pages

17 About this report: method and structure About this report: method and structure Online focus groups In October 2013, in partnership with YouGov, we conducted four online focus groups to explore public perceptions in more detail. In these semi-structured discussions we spoke to 38 participants, aged between 19 and 84, drawing together people living in 35 different counties or metropolitan boroughs throughout the United Kingdom. Together, the four groups included people who had voted for the Conservative Party, the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, the UK Independence Party and the British National Party at the last general election, as well as some who did not vote. The participants were also drawn from a broad mix of educational and employment backgrounds. We consulted a national cross-section of the public in the first discussion but wanted to explore the attitudes of those groups identified in our Audit of Political Engagement as more likely to be politically disengaged to see if there were any differences between them in their perceptions of Parliament, politicians and PMQs. The second of our focus groups was thus composed entirely of younger citizens, aged 18 to 34; the third included only female voters in the lower socio-economic groups (C2DEs) aged 35 plus; and participants in the final group were all people who did not vote at the 2010 general election. Further details about the make-up of the groups and the way in which they were recruited and conducted are available in Appendix II. Each group discussion was framed around a series of broad open questions about Parliament in relation to three key reform areas identified in our earlier focus groups: namely accountability, accessibility and transparency. How did the public understand the concepts and how did they view them in relation to parliamentary activity in the chamber and in committee? To explore public attitudes in detail we showed all the participants a series of video clips of Prime Minister s Questions, and, by way of comparison, the Prime Minister s appearances before the Liaison Committee, and select committee scrutiny in action. Audit of Political Engagement opinion poll In order to test the key themes and findings that emerged from the four focus groups we then ran a series of questions on our Audit of Political Engagement opinion poll. Between 6 and 12 December 2013, Ipsos MORI conducted face-to-face interviews at home with a representative quota sample of 1,286 adults aged 18 or above living in Great Britain. Further detail about the Audit opinion methodology is contained in Appendix IV. 17

18 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions This report contains the combined findings of these four online focus groups and the national opinion poll. Presentation of data The transcript of an online focus group captures all the original typographical errors made by the participants. In this report we use many quotes from the discussions. Where the participant s intention was clear we have tidied up these mistakes for clarity and ease of reading. However, in the interests of transparency and so that others may use them for research purposes, we are making the original transcripts available in anonymised form via our website (www.hansardsociety.org.uk). The PMQs section of the Audit dataset will also be made available on our website. Further detailed analysis of the opinion poll findings in relation to PMQs will be available in the Audit of Political Engagement 11: The 2014 Report to be published in the spring. At this point the full Audit dataset will then be published and made available on our website. We will also be lodging both the focus group transcripts and the Audit dataset with the UK Data Archive at the University of Essex for use by future researchers. Structure Chapter one sets out the findings of the focus groups in relation to Parliament and politicians generally. It sets the context for the participants perception and understanding of the institution particularly in relation to the key themes identified in our earlier focus groups as priority areas for reform namely accountability, accessibility and transparency. Chapter two details the response of the focus group participants to PMQs, the Liaison Committee and select committees, comparing and contrasting the views of the different groups to each aspect of parliamentary activity. The results of the Audit opinion poll test of the focus group findings about PMQs are set out in chapter three. It then explores how any future reform of this flagship parliamentary event might be shaped to address public concerns evident in both the qualitative and quantitative research. Beyond PMQs, the fourth and final chapter addresses the range of other potential reform areas highlighted in the focus groups. It explores the key areas of reform needed to address public perceptions that Parliament is out of touch, concern about its behaviour and values, questions about the format and effectiveness of parliamentary activity, and weaknesses in accountability. Finally, the report concludes with a series of appendices setting out further methodological information about the qualitative and quantitative research used in this study. 18

19 1. Public attitudes to Parliament and politicians 1. Public attitudes to Parliament and politicians What does Parliament bring to mind? Following some warm-up discussion about politics and current affairs the participants in each focus group were asked what comes to mind (words, thoughts, feelings, emotions) when the word Parliament is mentioned to them. The responses, unsurprisingly, were largely negative. In Group 1 (a national cross-section) the words traditional, pomp and ceremony, money, and old-fashioned were all offered up. One participant admitted to feeling a mixture of national pride and despair whilst another agreed that he had some pride in democracy at work. The term selfserving was also raised by several participants with one explaining that he thought t many are there for what they can get out of it not what they can give. He acknowledged that this was not true of all MPs but they seem keen to fall into well-paid directorships. Another participant chose ordinary people but explained that this was because she didn t think MPs are thinking of the general public when they re arguing amongst each other. In Group 2, the younger voters, the word liars was used, and that politicians just say what they think you want to hear. The perception of Parliament as an old institution and bureaucracy also emerged, a place that perhaps hasn t changed with the times. For one participant, when she thought of the Houses of Parliament, it was as a place to visit in London/a tourist attraction. A number in this group emphasised their perception of Parliament as a waste of time, a place where old men sat around moaning and groaning or of old men jeering and pretending to work. The sense that politicians are out of touch was also raised: for one participant Parliament, to him, meant power mad posh heads that are totally disconnected to the real world, to another it meant men in suits who do not know a thing about the real world, and for yet another it was a place inhabited by toffs. When pushed only one particularly positive response was forthcoming: Parliament, it was acknowledged, at least forces the debate/review into issues. In Group 3, all women C2DE voters, reference to the heritage theme was again echoed. For one participant it meant grandeur, pomp, historical, for another rules and London, Big Ben and the Thames. As one summed it up, I like the historical Britishness but that s about it! But it was the out of touch theme that was predominant in this group. For one participant, Parliament meant people who think they are better than Joe Public posh elitist, out of touch. For another it was filled with useless people, sleeping on the benches not interested in us ordinary folk and, for yet another, a lot of useless people earning a fortune to mess up the country. 19

20 Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister s Questions The theme was emphasised still further by another: Rich people with other careers already well established who think they know best but aren t strong enough to prove it to the voters, they fear the majority who are, unfortunately, less well off, educated and politically aware. Concluded one, the MPs seem to be all from public schl environments they think that because they are well off then everyone is they just don t seem to grasp how hard it is for ordinary people in their day-today lives. None of them have to pay extra for their bedrms, or council tax or have to fight to get disability benefits they just have had an easy ride all their lives. Only one participant in this group was more upbeat, pushing back during the debate at suggestions that MPs were useless. Parliament was, in her view something that affects everyone in the country, they pass Acts and laws that apply to us all, even if you don t agree with them. In Group 4, the non-voters, the out of touch theme also reared its head. Two sets of people with their head in the clouds who have never lived in the real world was one response. For one participant hot air! came to mind, for another it was irritation and anger. Reflecting both the themes of heritage and disaffection, other associations raised included Guy Fawkes!, gunpowder and The Levellers. In this group, the sense that Parliament is about playground arguing was particularly pronounced. It was a game between two parties slagging each other off, and had t much shouting rather than any action. Pontificating fls. The participants also referenced lying, bitching and bickering children, and rather more rudely smelly dirty apes fighting and laughing in a rm that should be demolished. Others were more inclined to a balanced view: At its worst, baying politicians on the benches, scoring points off one another rather than debating real issues. At its best, representatives of the people with real conviction, fighting our corner. Reading the focus group transcripts, however, one cannot escape the feeling that for many of the participants across all the groups, Parliament is rarely at its best. At the end of this period of discussion we presented the groups with a randomly organised list of commonly used words or phrases about Parliament and asked them to highlight the ones they felt best summed up their own views. The first group the national cross-section was presented with a list of words/phrases some of which could be considered positive in tone, some to be negative and a few to be neutral. In addition to these they could, if they chose, add their own words to the list. Overall, the first group had more positive words than negative ones to chse from. Building on the knowledge gleaned from the discussion and word selection of this first group, we then added a number of additional words/phrases for the other three groups thereby broadening the choice available. (These additional words are marked with an asterisk below.) 20

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